Monday, August 24, 2020

This Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda

This Light Between Us is the heartbreaking story of two teens whose long-distance friendship is ripped apart by the events of World War II.

Ten-year-old Charlie Levy, who lives in Paris, France begins writing Japanese-American, Alex Maki in March of 1935 as part of a letter exchange program with an American school. However Charlie's excitement over corresponding is not matched by Alex, who doesn't want to write letters to a girl. However, three years later in 1938, Alex and Charlie find themselves continuing to correspond with one another. At this time Alex reveals to Charlie that he does not have blond hair and blue eyes but is in fact a dark haired Japanese American. Although upset, Charlie forgives Alex for this lie.

On December 7, 1941, Alex's world changes forever with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Alex who lives with his parents and his older brother Frank on Bainbridge Island, in Washington state, is in church when the news arrives.Immediately, all the Japanese Americans in the church leave and return to their homes.

At first the Maki's believe things will settle down and life will return as it was before. But it soon becomes evident that Japan has awakened a sleeping giant and along with it, the deep-rooted prejudice towards Nisei and Issei.

At school Alex feels "his Japaneseness more keenly" and has racist graffiti scrawled on his locker. His homeroom teacher tells Alex and another Japanese American student not to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Within three days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans cannot travel more than five miles from home, cannot have radios, their bank accounts are frozen and must register at police stations.

Then Alex and his brother Frank return home one day after school to find that there father has been taken away. They learn that other families of Japanese heritage have had their homes searched, so they decide to destroy everything Japanese in their home, anything linking them to Japan with whom the United States is now at war.

Meanwhile in France, Charlie is also experiencing racism. Because she is Jewish, they are not allowed to use radios, ride bicycles, have a phone or use the public phone. Jews can't use parks, theatres, swimming pools, cafes or libraries. Many of her Jewish friends have fled Paris but Charlie refuses to leave her beloved city. A family friend, Monsieur Schafer wants Charlie's parents to flee to Nice but her Papa refuses. In her letters to Alex she tells him how the city is changing, how people first resisted the Nazis by painting V's everywhere but how she now experiences harassment on the subway.

In January of 1942, the FBI show up at the Maki home and ransack it. In late March, Alex and  his family learn that all Japanese persons will be evacuated from Bainbridge Island by the end of the month. A curfew for all Japanese on the island is also imposed. When Frank attempts to play in the exhibition charity game against their archrival West Seattle High, he is pulled off the field and taken home by the police.

On March 30, 1942, Alex and his family are taken from their home. They are taken by military truck to Eagle Harbor where they along with over two hundred Issei and Nisei are loaded onto a ferry that takes them across Puget Sound  to Seattle. For two days they travel by train and bus far inland, to Manzanar War Relocation Center. The prison camp is dirty, dusty, unfinished, with barracks that offer no privacy and little protection from the elements. In all this time Alex still has not received any further letters from Charlie.

A letter in June, 1942 reveals that things are deteriorating in France. Even worse, Charlie's letter is left unfinished. A letter in July informs Alex that Charlie is hiding in her father's factory waiting for the return of her father and mother who are at their apartment packing suitcases. They have finally decided to flee to Nice. Her letter ends so that Monsieur Schafer can post it in Nice. In October, Charlie writes to say that her parents never returned to the factory and the half-packed suitcases in their apartment indicated that her parents had been taken. Eventually Charlie was also captured and taken to the Velodrome d'Hiver along with thousands of other Jews. Fortunately, Monsieur Schafer is able to rescue Charlie from a camp, Beaune-la-Rolande by paying off those in charge. She is now living in hiding along with a Sinti family. Alex does not know this will be the last letter he received from Charlie.

In December, 1942, the clerk in the post office at Manzanar gives him a packet of his letters that have been returned. He learns from another man in the camp that the Germans invaded the unoccupied Vichy zone of France. All mail to France has now ceased.

As the months pass in the prison camp, Alex sees the toll it takes on his mother and his older brother Frank. Their petitions to free their father are unsuccessful but this is kept from their mother. A camp riot over poor living conditions result in the deaths of several Japanese Americans, further angering everyone.

Then one cold winter night in early 1943, Alex has a vision of Charlie. His volunteer work at the camp newspaper gives him information about events happening in Europe and it's not good. He learns that thousands of French Jews have been deported. Another distressing vision in March is of Charlie as a prisoner, gray, drab, skinny, with a shorn head and a number tattooed on her forearm. She begs him to find her. It is these visions plus the promise of release of his father should he enlist, that pushes Alex into the decision to join the army.

Alex's assignment into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a segregated unit of Japanese-American soldiers, leads him into the European theatre of war. Alex is on a mission, to defeat the Nazis and find Charlie before it's too late.


This Light Between Us tells the story of two teens, in two different countries, encountering racial hatred in a time of war. It is also a love story, born out of a friendship developed through years of writing letters to one another.  Their story is told mainly by Alex Maki while Charlie Levy's story is told through her letters to Alex.

Author Andrew Fukuda offers a compelling story in a realistic setting that incorporates many historical details and events. The evacuation of all Japanese from the West Coast, the incarceration in Manzanar prison camp, the riots by Japanese over living conditions, the 442nd Regiment, as well as the deportation, imprisonment and murder of hundreds of thousands of French Jews are some of those events captured in this novel.

A main focus of the novel is the racism both Alex and Charlie experience: Alex as a Japanese-American in the United States and Charlie as a French Jew in Paris during the Nazi occupation of France. The racist policies their countries enact change their lives forever, with devastating consequences. Fukuda captures with unsettling clarity the terrible conditions and treatment endured by Japanese Americans as they are forced out of their homes and businesses on the West Coast and into prison camps.

The feelings of anger, betrayal and  hopelessness, Japanese Americans, called Issei (Japanese immigrants) and Nisei (second generation Japanese born in America) experienced during the war as they were relocated to prison camps are very realistically portrayed. For example when Alex and Frank come home after school and discover their father has been arrested they are both angry and afraid. " 'How can they just take Father?' Alex says, incredulous.He looks at Father's chair at the dining table. Father, gone. His presence ripped away, leaving a gaping black hole in the universe..."  Fearful of what the police might do, Alex's family destroys everything Japanese in their home. "For the next few hours, they throw into a pile outside anything remotely Japanese: ceramic rick bowls, chopsticks, novels, kimonos, Hinamatsuri and Tango no Sekku dolls, phonographs by Noriko Awaya, old photo albums, Mother's favourite kintsugi ceramic cups and bowls, calendars with prints of Utagawa Hiroshige's work." Alex's mother also adds in all of Grandma's old letters and they light fire to the entire pile. "Two minutes later, and there's nothing left. Decades of thoughts and hopes and feelings turned to ashes, forever disappeared."  For many Japanese Americans (and Japanese Canadians) this loss of connection to their culture and their past would be only the beginning. They would lose their homes and businesses, sent to prison camps (politely termed "internment camps") and some would lose their lives as a result of the harsh conditions, poor food, and crowded living barracks.

Charlie's experiences as a French Jew are not quite so detailed, but her fate is no less disturbing and is tragic. For Charlie, her experiences are recounted in her letters to Alex. They portray her feelings as war inches closer: there is the hope that things will be fine, the growing realization that her world around her is collapsing, the loss of her parents and then her fear and loneliness before her disappearance. Fukuda incorporates a touch of romantic fantasy, with Alex's visions of Charlie in terrible distress. This serves as a major impetus to his enlistment; he needs to find Charlie.

A significant portion of This Light Between Us portrays fighting by the 442nd, the unit Alex Maki is assigned to.  Fukuda sets his character in the battle the 442nd will be forever remembered for,  the Rescue of the Lost Battalion. This situation developed in the Vosges Mountains of northern France in October, 1944 when the 1st Battalion of the 141st Regiment became separated from their fellow soldiers and were surrounded by several German units. Unless the Germans were forced to retreat, the battalion was doomed. Attempts to reach the 1st Battalion by several other American units were unsuccessful. It took six days of brutal fighting, including hand to hand combat, before the Japanese-Americans were able to reach the trapped soldiers. They received Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars for their tremendous bravery. Fukuda's portrayal of the fighting makes for exciting reading and gives young readers a good sense of  the reality of war and the sacrifice made by a segregated unit of Japanese soldiers a country that treated them so wrongly.

This Light Between Us is one of the stars of historical fiction of 2020. There are plenty of themes to explore and historical events to research in greater depth. The novel takes its title from the paper lanterns both Charlie and Alex light and set afloat, Charlie's lantern in the Seine, Alexi's in the Atlantic Ocean in the hope they will find the other across time and space.

Fukuda offers readers a Bibliography at the back of the novel. He found the inspiration for this novel based on the facts that Anne Frank had an American penpal and that a "A subcamp of the Dachau concentration camp was liberated on April 29, 1945, by a segregated all-Japanese American military unit."  These two facts along with some research led to this novel. This novel is well written, engaging and highly recommended.

You can read more about the Rescue of the Lost Battalion at the Densho Encyclopedia.

Book Details:

The Light Between Us by Andrew Fukuda
New York: Tom Doherty Associates Book   2019
382 pp.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Train by Jodie Callaghan

The Train is a children's picture book that introduces the topic of residential schools to young readers. In this short but important picture book, a young girl named Ashley is on her way home from school.  Walking along collecting bits of glass, she meets her great-uncle near where the old train station once stood. After embracing he tells her that he is waiting for the train. This puzzles Ashley who knows that there is no train able to travel along the broken tracks, no longer in use.

Sitting on a piece of the concrete foundation left from the old train station, Uncle tells Ashley his story about the train station. When he was a young boy, many young people from the reserve including Uncle and Ashley's grandfather, Timmy would wait for the train to bring rations from outside the reserve. One day the four oldest, including Timmy and Uncle were sent to the train station with baskets, wearing their winter coats to the station. To their surprise, they were made to board the boxcars and were taken to a school. At the school, the nuns took their clothes, cut their hair and weren't allowed to speak their native language. If they disobeyed, they were punished, sometimes severely. Uncle stayed at the school for six years, afraid and unhappy.

Ashley's elderly great-uncle now comes to the tracks to remember and  to wait "...for what we lost that day to come back to us." But he is also happy that Ashley doesn't have to attend a residential school. Her laughter and joy at playing and running give him hope for the future.


Jodie Callaghan is a member of Listuguj First Nation located in Gespegewa'gi near Quebec. Callaghan who is Mi'gmaq heritage was inspired to write The Train after hearing the stories of many people who attended residential schools. The Train was the winner of the 2010 Mi'gmaq Writers Award.

This picture book offers a gentle treatment of the residential school issue, introducing the basic facts of what happened to over one hundred fifty thousand First Nations children throughout Canada in the 19th and 20th centuries. As such it can be used as a spring board to discuss more in-depth what happened to the Indigenous peoples of Canada and how their culture was stolen from several generations. Georgia Lesley's lovely oil paintings bring to life this sad story. Callaghan includes a short glossary of Mi'gmaq words that have been used in the story.

Book Details:

The Train by Jodie Callaghan
Toronto: Second Story Press      2020

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

They Went Left by Monica Hesse

They Went Left is Monica Hesse's newest offering. This novel focuses on the post-World War II period as a holocaust survivor, eighteen-year-old Zofia Lederman searches among the ruins of Europe for her missing twelve-year-old brother.

It is August 1945 and Zofia is preparing to leave the camp where she has been for the last few months regaining her health. Zofia was barely alive in Gross-Rosen when it was liberated by the Soviet Red Army in February. She was found in the women's barracks by Dima Sokolov, a Russian soldier. Now Dima waits for her to be processed out of the camp so he can drive her to Sosnowiec, her home town. Zofia hopes that her twelve-year-old brother, Abek who was in Birkenau which was liberated before Gross-Rosen will have returned there.

Zofia remembers how they became separated. Three years into the occupation of Sosnowiec, on August 12, 1942, all the remaining Jews were ordered to go to the soccer stadium under the pretense of being issued new identification. But when Zofia and her family arrived at the stadium, they like other Jews waited for days to be sorted by health, age and by who looked strong enough to work. Eventually, Zofia's family was sorted, she and Abek were sent to the right. Everyone else in her family, "Papa, Mama, Baba Rose, beautiful Aunt Maja.....they went left."

Her experiences at Birkenau and Gross-Rosen have left her struggling to remember and to distinguish real memories from dreams.

With Dima's help, Zofia returns to her family's apartment in Sosnowiec, their real home before the Nazis forced all six of them into an apartment in the Jewish ghetto. While Dima goes to report in to his superiors, Zofia walks to her family's home on Mariacka Street. She finds their apartment empty, no furniture and no Abek. A neighbour, Pani Wojcik tells Zofia she hasn't seen him. In a closet, Zofia finds a hope chest filled with clothing they couldn't take with them when they were forced to leave home and into the ghetto. In it she finds her mother's wedding dress along with clothing that Zofia had made for her brother or aunt. In her brother's jacket, she had sewed in the story of their family in the form of the alphabet. "A is for Abek. B is for Baba Rose. C is for Chomicki & Lederman, the factory we own, and Dis for Dekerta, the street we attend synagogue on,....H is for our mother, Helena; M is for Aunt Maja; Z is for Zofia."

Dima arrives at the apartment telling Zofia that he has invited his Commander for dinner. When Zofia goes to the bakery to buy bread, she meets a friend, Gosia who survived the war in hiding. Gosia tries to help Zofia in finding her brother by asking Salomon Prager who survived and who may have seen Abek. Dima, Commander Kuznetsov, and Gosia have dinner at Zofia's apartment. During the dinner Zofia learns that Abek may have been transferred to either Bergen-Belsen or Dachau which are near Munich. She also learns that Dima has learned that Abek is not at Bergen-Belsen but he doesn't know about Dachau or Birkenau. Zofia is told that if Abek was evacuated from Birkenau he is likely to be in a refugee camp called Foehrenwald near Munich. When Dima comes to stay overnight in order to protect Zofia, she quietly leaves after he falls asleep and takes a train from Silesia to Germany. 

So begins Zofia's hunt for her brother. It will take her deep into Germany to a displaced persons camp in Munich where Zofia will finally confront her past so she can face the future.


They Went Left is a heart-rending story of a Holocaust survivor confronting the past she has blocked out to protect herself as she struggles to reclaim her life at the end of World War II.

Hesse, who has written several World War II historical fiction novels, wanted to write a story that focused on the post-war period. "I realized that most of the books I'd read and documentaries I'd seen all finished at the same place: the end of the war. They ended with the liberation of a concentration camp. The disbanding of an army unit. A celebration in the streets. There was much less about what happened in the weeks and months after the war, when an entire continent had to find a way to recover from the suffering it had experienced and the atrocities it had committed." 
On a trip through Europe and specifically on a train ride through a city called Sosnowiec, Hesse was inspired " re-create, as best I could, what might have happened to a young woman who had been taken from that town at the beginning of the war, and who now had to return to it."  In her "A Note on History and Research" Hesse takes readers through her stages of research and how she attempted to recreate some of the historical points in her story. For example, Zofia's imprisonment was patterned from the historical event of young women with sewing skills being sent as slave labour to Neustadt, a textile factory, and then forced to march to Gross-Rosen in the winter near the end of the war in Europe.

The result is a novel that not only provides readers with a window into postwar Europe, but also to the challenges Jews who survived the Holocaust encountered. Most had lost almost all immediate family.  Few children survived the war, as most were gassed or brutally murdered as Zofia witnessed. Many survivors suffered from serious physical ailments like Zofia who lost toes to frostbite. Some survived only to die a few days, weeks or months after, as in the case of Miriam's twin sister Rose. Most had no homes to return to, either being destroyed in the war or repossessed by neighbours or strangers who refused to leave. Attitudes in many European countries towards the Jewish population continued to be hostile, as demonstrated by the threats Zofia received while staying at her family's home in Sosnowiec. As a result, many like Breine and Chaim, emigrated to Israel while others like Zofia and Abek moved to North America. In this way, Hesse has effectively captured an accurate snapshot of postwar Europe for young readers, making this historical fiction at its best.

In They Went Left, the story opens with Zofia Lederman leaving the hospital to begin the search for her brother, Abek. With the help of two Russian soldiers, Zofia follows a lead that takes her to a displaced persons camp, Foehrenwald, near Munich. Throughout this time, Zofia seems confused, unable to concentrate, mixing up names and forgetting events that have just happened. And she continues to have dreams about her missing brother.

Hesse gives hints that something about Zofia's memories is not quite right through a series of dreams Zofia experiences, about the last time she saw Abek. The novel opens with the first version of the dream in which Abek is a healthy boy and she is about to be transferred out of Birkenau. "But then something changes. Then dream-Abek's face twists, and his words come out pained: 'Something happened,' this Abek says. 'But we don't have to talk about it yet.' " This suggests that something about this memory or dream is not quite as it seems and that it is something Zofia is unable to cope with at this time. Each dream Zofia has is not quite true recounting of what actually happened to Zofia and Abek as they are forced from Sosnowiec and travel to Birkenau. They are what she terms, "A dream version, not the real version, and as soon as I realize that, I open my eyes."  Eventually Zofia has a dream that places her and Abek in a dark space. He tells her 
" 'Is it time yet?' he asks. 'Is it time to think about the last time you saw me?'
'I'm trying,' I tell him, 'I'm trying.'
'You're getting closer,' he says, 'You're getting closer, so please make a promise to me, Zofia. Make one guarantee: that this is the last time you lie about the last time you saw me.'
'How can it be a lie if I don't know what the truth is?' I ask.
'The absences of the truth is not the presence of a lie. I'm trying. I'm trying. I'm trying. '"
By this time it's evident that Zofia is suppressing something so terrible she mustn't remember it.

When she arrives in Foehrenwald to search for her brother, the kindness of the refugees helps Zofia and her mental state improves. She begins a relationship with a man named Josef Meuller and she rediscovers her skill for sewing and tailoring as her family once owned a clothing factory. She takes a trip to the Kloster Indersdorf, a camp that took in children from Dachau to see if Abek is there but this proves fruitless. The kindly  nun, Sister Therese who runs the camp, offers to post notices and shortly afterwards, Abek shows up at Foehrenwald. It's seems unbelievable.
But soon Zofia comes to the realization that the boy claiming to be her brother is not her brother. This and the realization of Josef's true identity force Zofia to confront what really happened in the train to Abek at Birkenau. This memory that had been suppressed so she could survive through the horror each day brought. "I left pieces of myself in that car. I left pieces I will never get back. I left them unwillingly, as my mind forced itself to block away those impossible, impossible minutes. I left them willingly for my own protection, because remembering that story would hae demolished every reason I had to survive. And beyond all reason, beyond any possible explanation, I still did want to survive."

Although Abek was gone, his story lived on in the jacket that Zofia had made for him containing the alphabet of their lives. It was found by another little boy who also wanted to survive and who losing his family hoped to find another. But that alphabet which told the story of Zofia and her family is no more. Now it has changed.
"A is for Abek.
B is for Baba Rose. No. B isn't for Baba Rose any longer. Baba Rose is gone. B is for -- B can be for Breine, effervescent and hopeful, planning her beautiful wedding inside a refugee camp. And C is for Chaim, her timid Hungarian groom.
D is for Dima, who saved me, take me to the hospital and then taking me home to Sosnowiec. 
E is for Esther, kind and steady, apply rouge to the cheeks of her protesting friend.....
X is to x things out. To cross out the things I'll forget on purpose. Some things are okay to forget on purpose....
Z is for Zofia."
Zofia, knowing that the boy before her is not Abek, makes a decision to look to the future. "I think we must find miracles where we can. We must love the people in front of us. We must forgive ourselves for the things we did to survive. The things we broke. The things that broke us." 
Well-written and well researched, They Went Left is story filled with tragedy and hope.  In Zofia, Hesse has crafted a heroine who despite having experienced the most unimaginable suffering and seen so much death, has survived. This trauma makes her an unreliable narrator for most of the novel. Eventually she is forced to confront the reality of what happened to her and to her family. Only when she is in a place of safety, when she experiences the kindness of others, and when she sees that there is the possibility of a life after the horrors of war can Zofia being to process what she has experienced.

As one might expect this novel does contain some sexual content and some scenes of death and violence, making it more suitable for older readers.

Book Details:

They Went Left by Monica Hesse
New York: Little, Brown and Company    2020
364 pp.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

DVD: 1917

1917 is a war movie that tells the story of two fictional soldiers and their journey to warn another British unit that it is not to launch a planned attack on German lines.

Lance Corporal Thomas Blake learns that his leave has been cancelled and that he must see General Erinmore immediately. Told to pick a buddy to come with him, Blake choses Lance Corporal William Schofield.

They meet with General Erinmore who asks Blake if he has a brother in the 2nd Devons.  He tells him that his brother Joseph is in the 2nd Devons. On a map Erinmore shows Blake the location of the 2nd Devons and asks him how long it would take him to travel there. On the ground it appears the Germans have undertaken a strategic withdrawal. Colonel MacKenzie in command of the 2nd Devons has sent a message indicating that he is going after the retreating Germans. He believes he can break them. But Eirnmore tells Blake that he is wrong.

Aerial reconnaissance indicates that the Germans have extensive fortifications, defenses and a new type of artillery. The 2nd are to attack the German line in the morning tomorrow but they do not know about these fortifications. Erinmore can't warn the 2nd because the Germans have cut all their phone lines. Blake and Schofield are to travel to the 2nd Devons at their current position at Croisilles Wood, one mile southeast of the town of Ecoust, and deliver a message to Colonel MacKenzie to call off the attack. If they fail, they will lose two battalions, sixteen hundred men including Blake's brother Joseph Blake.

After being told to leave immediately, Blake and Schofield are given a few supplies and directions to the Yorks. They are to follow the trench west up on Sauchiehall Street, the northwest on Paradise Alley at the front. They are to continue along the front line until they find the Yorks. There they must give a note to Major Stephenson who is holding the line at the shortest span of  no-man's land. It is at this point that they will cross.

When they express concern about crossing in daylight and being seen they are told not to worry as there should be no resistance. Nevertheless, as they leave, Schofield tries to convince Blake to wait until dark but he refuses, saying he must save his brother.

Blake and Schofield reach the Yorks and learn that Major Stephenson has been killed and replaced by Lieutenant Leslie. The lieutenant believes Eirnmore is crazy to believe the Germans have retreated. Despite his deep cynicism, Leslie, who tells Blake and Schofield there "is nothing like a scrap of ribbon to cheer up a widow", gives them directions on how to cross no-mans land.

The two soldiers succeed in crossing no mans land and enter an abandoned German bunker which they discover has been booby-trapped. Schofield is almost killed by rock debris when a rat trips the wire and causes an explosion. He is saved by Blake who helps lead him out of the bunker and then wash the rock dust out of his eyes. They cross the rest of no mans land, and pass through a deserted forest.

At an abandoned farmhouse, Blake and Schofield are almost killed when a German plane is shot out of the sky and crash lands in the ruins of the barn. The two soldiers rescue the pilot, his suit in flames, from the plane. When Schofield wants to shoot the pilot, Blake insists that they help him. While Schofield is getting water from the well, the pilot turns on Blake and fatally stabs him. Schofield promises a dying Blake that he will continue their mission and find the 2nd Devons to bring Erinmore's message and thus save his brother.

Shortly after Blake's death, Schofield is helped by a unit of British soldiers who have just crossed no mans land near Bapaume. The commander, Captain Smith offers Schofield a ride part of the way to Ecouste. They are going up to the new line as the Newfoundlanders have requested reinforcements. Just outside of Ecouste, Schofield is once again on his own, as the troops cannot cross the downed bridge into the town.

In Ecouste Schofield is targeted by German snipers and is eventually grazed and knocked out. When he awakens he finds the town burning. Still being chased by German soldiers, Schofield stumbles into a basement where he finds a young woman caring for a starving baby. He gives her all his food, including his canteen filled with milk.

At daylight Schofield continues on his journey but again encounters German soldiers and is pursued until he jumps into the river and is carried downstream to the Croisilles Wood. Schofield doesn't know this is where he has beached until he hears singing which leads him to the 2nd Devons. The soldiers are preparing to go into battle and Schofield now faces a race to save at least some of the soldiers from certain death.


1917 follows the journey of two soldiers as they race against time and fend off certain death to warn a British battalion it is walking into a trap by attacking what appear to be retreating German soldiers. The mission is made even more urgent in that the soldier chosen to deliver the message has a brother in the at-risk battalion.

The film 1917 presents a somewhat false view that the British command during the Great War was deeply concerned about the loss of men. In fact, the potential loss of sixteen hundred men is almost insignificant in the face of the over four hundred thousand causalities the British Commonwealth experienced during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. For many military commanders, these losses were deemed necessary by those in positions of authority in France, Britain, Germany and even Russia. Soldiers spent years fighting over mere yards of land, knowing that certain death awaited them every time they were ordered out of their putrid trenches.

Putting aside this fictional representation, 1917 does attempt to portray the desolation and destruction of war but the film in many ways is a very sanitized presentation of war; viewers only get a quick glimpse of bodies or part of bodies in no man's land, the fires in Ecoust are in the distance, the strangulation of a German soldier by Schofield is in shadow, soldiers fall in a clean, indifferent way in the first wave of the 2nd Devon's attack and even Blake's death is quick. Perhaps the most touching moment is near the film's end, when Schofield talks with Blake's brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake, asking him if he can write to their mother. He wants her to know Tom didn't die alone. Granted the film's focus is on the two soldiers and eventually just Schofield and his journey through many obstacles. This is accomplished with amazing cinematography and that is where this film's strength lies.

Casting was particularly strong, with both George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman as Schofield and Blake giving solid performances. There are a few big names including Colin Firth as General Erinmore and Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel MacKenzie in cameo roles.

There have been numerous war movies of late, a theme the doesn't seem sustainable given the current depressing climate of Covid. Movie buffs will likely be looking for lighter fare in the coming months. Nevertheless, 1917 is a well done, fictional treatment of the Great War, that offers a few suspenseful moments and some beautiful cinematography and a lovely haunting melody at the end.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Wink by Rob Harrell

In Wink, twelve-year-old Ross Maloy has been diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer called mucoepidermoid carcinoma of the lacrimal gland. Ross's story is told in the present as he goes through a series of radiation treatments with flashbacks to how his battle with cancer began.

Ross lives with his father who is a trial lawyer and his stepmother Linda. His mother, a talented illustrator died of cancer when Ross was five but he doesn't remember very much about her.

His life changed forever one summer day in July when Ross's father notice his right eye was puffy. After two days of icing his eye, they decide to take him to see Dr. Sheffler, an eye specialist. What followed was a CT scan and an immediate consultation with Dr. Sheffler who revealed that the scan showed a tumor in the lacrimal gland above Ross's right eye. A biopsy of the tumor revealed the diagnosis of a rare cancer that Dr. Sheffler had never encountered before.

Dr. Sheffler brings in Dr. Inzer who tells Ross and his dad that the only way to treat his cancer  is to remove his entire right eye and socket and then to do radiation. She offers to do the surgery in two days. This treatment would mean the complete loss of Ross's vision.  Ross is completely devastated. To help him cope his father takes him to see Abby Peterson, his "best friend since the third day of first grade."

The day after this terrible diagnosis and prognosis, Dr. Sheffler contacts Ross's father and arranges for them to meet Dr. Throckton. He tells Ross and his father that he can save both of Ross's eyes. First he will have a more modest surgery that removes the lacrimal gland, recover from that and then undergo eight weeks of proton radiotherapy. The radiotherapy will gradually destroy the sight in Ross's right eye but his left eye will be protected to save the vision.

The first surgery date is cancelled and Ross has his surgery two days later leaving him with a scar and a "closed, squinty, permanently winking eye." Beside him, through the post-operative pain is Abby. Soon after his first surgery and just before school starts, Ross has more surgery to place special "BBs" in his forehead to direct the radiotherapy beams.  Most of the above information about his cancer is given in chapters that are flash backs which Ross labels as Bad Days.

Harrell opens his novel with Ross's story in the present as he attends his first proton radiotherapy session and returns to school, after missing the first week. At the clinic he meets Jerry an elderly man who is also a patient, and Frank, the radiation tech who encourages him to bring his own music to help the sessions pass quickly. Their discussions about music help Ross to cope with the treatments.

School is more challenging because all Ross wants to do is fit in. He's spent previous grades just flying under the radar. In contrast to Ross, his best friend, Abby stands out with her tangerine-colored hair and her "eccentric sense of fashion." Next to Abby, Ross is invisible and that's how he likes it. But his classmates can't help but notice Ross's eye. Jimmy Jenkins, the gum-chewing, spitting kid who sits next to Ross in class, mocks and bullies Ross.

His cancer diagnosis gets Ross attention from Sarah Kennedy, the smartest, prettiest girl in his grade. Sarah tells Ross that there is a Christmas talent show in December at the end of semester. Ross has no idea what he would possibly do but he's thrilled to be noticed by Sarah. As he goes through treatments, the side-effects lead classmates to make fun of him, posting cruel memes online. In his attempt to find comfort in the music that Frank has given him, Ross realizes that it is guitar that resonates with what he is feeling. With Frank's help Ross begins to learn how to play guitar and in the process discovers the importance of friendship, learns to cope with his illness and discovers the key to fitting in.


Rob Harrell has written a funny, engaging book that tackles some pretty heavy topics for juvenile readers, among them cancer and death as well as friendship and change. These topics are handled in a deeply personal way for young readers but with a touch of humour that lightens the story. Not only are there many funny situations but Harrell incorporates numerous comic panels of the adventures of Batpig, Ross's alter-ego and the comic character he created.

Wink is based on Harrell's own experience when he battled the same type of cancer in 2006, experiencing many of the same things as his character Ross Maloy. Because he was able to draw on his own experiences, Wink feels realistic and believable, despite it's somewhat formulaic structure (sick kid scores big at the school talent show).

In Wink, Ross and his father are shocked to learn he has a very rare form of cancer. Their family lost Ross's mother to cancer when he was very young, so Ross's diagnosis seems especially devastating. As a boy beginning Grade Seven, all Ross wants to do is fit in, be normal and remain invisible and cancer won't let him do that. His surgery leaves him with a scar and a permanently winking eye while the radiation treatments cause him to lose his hair and to have to use a messy ointment for his damaged eye. To hide these changes,  Ross takes to wearing a cowboy hat to school which earns him even more unwanted and unpleasant attention in the form of bullying and some nasty online memes mocking him.

But Harrell has created a dauntless character in Ross. Despite the anger, fear, repeated humiliations in front of classmates, and sense of loss, Ross grows throughout his ordeal. In a conversation with Jerry, an older man who is also going through cancer treatment, Ross learns that Jerry who was a really good trumpet player never followed his dream further because he was told it was something normal people don't do. Ross comes to understand that being "normal" is not necessarily a good thing to aspire to. Jerry tells Ross, "But different! That's another matter. Different moves the needle. Different is where the good stuff happens. There's strength in different."  It is advice Ross takes to heart.

After realizing that music is helping him cope with his intense feelings, Ross asks Frank to teach him guitar. This leads him to form a reluctant partnership with classmate Jimmy Jenkins that blossoms into a true friendship. Music offers Ross the opportunity to form new interests and friends, something that will be important in the second semester when his best friend Abby will no longer be at school. It also allows  him the chance to transition from being invisible to "standing out", when he performs with Jimmy and Abby in the Christmas talent show.

Ross also comes to recognize the importance of friendship and what it means to be a good friend. Before his cancer diagnosis, Abby, Ross and Isaac Nalibotsky had been good friends since grade four. However, when Ross is diagnosed with cancer, Isaac simply cuts out of their group. Eventually Ross confronts Isaac who tells him he freaked out and "had zero idea what to do. What to say to you. Zero."  In other words, Isaac had no idea how to deal with a friend who has a serious illness. This is a minor theme that Harrell gives some attention to at the beginning of the novel when classmates react to Ross's return to school with curious looks. "Now I can't walk the length of a hallway without someone studying me to see if I look sick. Or just staring. Or even worse, they ask how I'm feeling." Ross even mentions how some people cope with illness or death by mentioning their own experiences. Eventually Isaac does realize what he did was hurtful and he attempts to make it up to Ross by giving him a new cowboy hat before the Christmas talent show.

In contrast to Isaac, Abby doesn't let Ross's cancer diagnosis influence their friendship. She listened to him talk about his cancer diagnosis, was with him after his surgery, and was willing to be with him for his first radiation treatment. Her loyalty through a difficult time mark her as a true friend. Her ability to treat Ross the same through his illness, helps him cope with what is happening and adds some normalcy to his life. Ross describes Abby as "She's the only person who jokes with me about my 'situation' -- she's done it through most of this whole ordeal -- and I literally could not appreciate it more. It makes me feel like something in the world is normal." Abby is the friend who encourages Ross in his guitar lessons and to play at the talent show.

Abby also teaches Ross that a good friend is someone that can also listen and reciprocate. Ross learns that friendship is both receiving and giving, that his relationship with Abby mustn't always be all about his problems. This happens when he visits Abby and learns she is upset about her family's move. "Do you realize my whole life is about to change? Everything! I'm being uprooted! Why am I even bothering with homework? It's not like anything matters. It's so stupid. I mean, I know you're dealing with a lot -- I can't imagine -- but for God's sake Ross! Am I not allowed to have my own...." The two fight and Ross leaves feeling angry but also knowing in his heart Abby is right although he has a difficult time at first experiencing empathy for Abby's situation. "Does she really think her problems compare to mine? I have a life-threatening disease! I could friggin' die!..."  Eventually though Ross comes to understand Abby's worries telling her, "I think I've been way up my own butt."  Ross helps Abby deal with her worry about "sticking out", telling her that she "stands out" in a good way.

Ross also learns that people may not always be what they appear to be on the outside. This is demonstrated by the characters, Sarah Kennedy and Jimmy Jenkins. Sarah is smart, pretty and popular while Jimmy is large, rude and has the disgusting habit of spitting in a jar. Ross wants nothing to do with Jimmy who harasses him constantly in class. However, he tries desperately to impress Sarah each time humiliating himself. When a series of hurtful memes ridiculing Ross are shared online, Ross believes Jimmy is the perpetrator. This results in a brawl in class and Ross accusing Jimmy in front of the principal. It turns out that Jimmy, who doesn't own a phone, is not the culprit and he genuinely tells Ross,  "...Those pictures or memes or whatever. They sucked."  Eventually it is Jimmy who learns the truth,  revealing to Ross that Sarah Kennedy is responsible. Ross learns that Sarah's popular, pretty face hides a mean heart, while Jimmy has become a caring friend.

Despite the heavy topic of cancer, young readers will find Wink to be a well-written novel with many funny moments. The numerous Batpig cartoons placed throughout the book are enjoyable and serve to ease the tension  in the story. Fans of Wonder will definitely enjoy Wink

Book Details:

Wink by Rob Harrell
New York: Dial Books for Young Readers   2020
315 pp.